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What do Americans think about abortion policy? It can be complicated

What do Americans think about abortion policy? It can be complicated

The political fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade remains to be seen. But while public opinion polls offer some sense of what Americans think about abortion, the data is murkier and more contradictory than either supporters and opponents of abortion rights tend to admit. 

Partly, that’s because views on abortion are intensely personal. Complicating matters further, these views may be tallied differently depending on how the pollster asks the question.

“There is ample evidence that many people are ambivalent about the issue or experience significant cross-pressures in formulating an opinion,” Scott Keeter, a senior survey advisor to the Pew Research Center, told PolitiFact in May. “These realities make it quite difficult to sum up abortion attitudes in one or two sentences or with one or two questions.”

Did Americans want Roe v. Wade overturned?

One data point is helpful to those pushing back against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade: Prior to the court’s June 24 decision, a majority of Americans told pollsters that they wanted the justices to keep the ruling in place rather than overturn it.

In six independent polls taken in 2022, an average of 60% of respondents supported keeping Roe v. Wade, compared to an average of 32% who thought it should be overturned. That’s almost a 2-to-1 advantage in favor of keeping Roe in place. 

These findings have been consistent in recent years. Polls taken in 2020, 2021, or 2022, have not found significant differences on this question — nor have polls taken before or after the draft of the ruling that leaked in May.

 

What do Americans think about abortion policy?

Polling experts caution, however, that the headline number on Roe v. Wade is not the starting and ending point of the public’s views on abortion. Because some respondents may not fully appreciate the mechanics of what overturning Roe means for abortion policy, other questions are able to capture greater nuance in public opinion.

For pollsters, “abortion is an incredibly difficult issue to measure,” since the results can be affected by question wording, question order, and other variables, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, told PolitiFact in May.

One common question asks whether abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases.

If support for having abortion legal in all cases and legal in most cases is grouped together, the results in four recent surveys range from 59% to 65%. That’s similar to support for keeping Roe in place.

But if you group together the two middle categories — those that accept the need for some abortion rights along with a desire to limit access — these results add up to 54% to 60%. 

This suggests that a majority have a nuanced view of abortion. The middle category “seems to be where opinion is,” Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told PolitiFact in May. “Americans have always been willing to put significant restrictions on its use.”

 

Polling also offers a look at what Americans think of more specific scenarios.

People widely support access to an abortion after rape or incest. People are also more willing to support an abortion if it happens in the first trimester instead of the third trimester.

Some of the most detailed data comes from a 2018 Gallup poll. In the first trimester, Gallup found, support for allowing a legal abortion was overwhelming in the case of danger to the woman (83%) and in the event of rape or incest (77%). Majorities also supported access to a first-trimester abortion if the child would be born with a life-threatening illness (67%) and if the child would be born with a mental disability (56%).

Support, however, dropped by between 8 and 25 percentage points if the scenario required a third-trimester abortion. And in either the first or third trimester, only a minority of respondents said they would support access to abortion for a fetus with Down syndrome or if the woman wanted an abortion for “any reason.”

 

A poll taken in April by ABC News and the Washington Post —  before the leak of the draft opinion — found similar concerns about banning abortion in certain circumstances. 

The poll found 79% approving of legal abortion in the case of rape or incest; 67% in the case of serious birth defects; and 82% if “the woman’s physical health is endangered.”

These could become hotly contested issues as states grapple with whether, or how much, to restrict abortions. Currently, among the 18 states that are poised to see abortion banned after the Supreme Court’s decision, only a couple specifically provide exceptions for rape and incest. Abortion-rights supporters could point to polling support for this exception as they argue for modifying these laws or preventing additional states from enacting abortion bans.

Is public opinion on abortion changing?

It will take at least a few weeks until poll results fully reflect any shift in opinion following the overturning of Roe. But there is one bit of evidence that opinion is trending in the direction of abortion rights, at least modestly.

Gallup has been asking the same question about abortion almost since Roe was decided in 1973: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?”

Over nearly five decades, “legal under any circumstances” has generally attracted between 20% to 30% support, while “illegal in all circumstances” has pulled between 10% and 20% support.

The top choice has always been “legal only under certain circumstances,” which has generally polled between 50% and 60%.

Here’s the recent shift: The percentage supporting “legal under any circumstances” has risen for four consecutive years, from 25% in 2019 to 35% in 2022. That is a record high since 1977, which was the first time Gallup asked the question.

Over the same period, the share saying abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” fell from 21% to 13%. That was close to an all-time low since the question has been asked. (The 2022 Gallup survey was taken mostly after the draft decision was leaked.)

 

People have complicated views about abortion

Ultimately, analyzing abortion-related poll questions is tricky because people are honestly conflicted about their views on abortion. Views on abortion are “complicated or ambivalent,” said Bowman, the polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

A team of University of Notre Dame researchers conducted 217 in-depth interviews with Americans across six states in 2019. “Abortion attitudes are more complex than survey statistics suggest,” they concluded. “Survey summaries can be misleading and should be interpreted with caution.”

Often, the researchers found, “surveys miss the ways that Americans offer disclaimers and caveats, contradict themselves, hedge their responses, change their minds, and think through things in real time. Most Americans, moreover, do not hold bipolar views toward abortion but multidimensional ones.”

The challenge with abortion polling is two-fold: First, how do survey respondents frame and summarize their own views, and second, how do the pollsters interpret those responses? 

“How do you interpret the middle response categories?” Smith, of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said. “Is the respondent for abortion only for a ‘good’ reason, or for most abortions?”

Bowman said that polling may never fully capture Americans’ views on abortion.

“My gut tells me that when people hold contradictory or complicated views about an issue such as abortion, most pull away from the debate,” she said. “They don’t want to resolve, or see the need to resolve, the contradictory impulses in their thinking. That leaves the playing field to the activists on both sides who don’t really capture public opinion, but claim to.”

Source: PolitiFact.

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